Remember when the election of Barack Obama was supposed to change everything on environmental policy? Some days that seems like it was a long time ago, doesn’t it? To be sure, no administration could have been worse that George W. Bush’s crew, which was filled with oil men who couldn’t sign off fast enough on drilling from sea to shining sea — and on a lot of federal lands in between. And indeed, there were hopeful signs of change in those first months after Obama became our 44th president.
Consider the state of Utah, one of the many regions targeted by Big Energy in the current natural gas boom. The federal government is the biggest landowner in Utah, and in his final days in office, Bush 43 had raced to dole out lucrative leases to drillers all over the Beehive State, on 103,000 acres of prime real estate. The Obama administration initially undid those leases and also promised to tighten up relaxed environmental standards on many of the wells being drilled in Utah. But that was more than three years ago. Here is what’s happening today in the U.S. Bureau of Land Mangement, the key agency tasked with regulating drilling on federal land:
VERNAL, Utah — Bill Stringer leaned into the office of his top deputy here at the Bureau of Land Management one recent day to share his latest victory.
“We got upheld!” Mr. Stringer said, meaning his bosses in Salt Lake City had gone along with his staff’s recommendation to allow oil drilling near Desolation Canyon, a national historic site known for its pristine wilderness and white-water rafting. Despite objections from environmentalists, more oil wells would dot the huge stretch of federal land Mr. Stringer oversees.
Thanks to this outstanding new article by Eric Lipton in the New York Times, we can now see how the Obama administration has backtracked and backed down in the face of a big-money lobbying onslaught from Big Oil and Gas. With the help of this industry-friendly aide Stringer, drilling rigs are now lining many of the beautiful natural places of Utah, including — but hardly limited to — Desolation Canyon.
The Times’ Lipton documents how a plan for a federal probe into ozone pollution was shelved in favor of an outdated industry study that whitewashed the problem; today ozone pollution in isolated Vernal, Utah, is nearly as bad as in Los Angeles. The most disturbing part is this: In 2012, “drill, baby, drill” is no longer a bug, but rather a feature of the Obama presidency. It’s now a bragging point as he runs for a second term:
In recent months, the Obama administration has approved several long-delayed drilling projects near Vernal, including one that has brought threats of lawsuits from environmentalists and unusual praise from the industry. In an election year, with jobs a crucial issue and increasing energy independence a campaign talking point, President Obama and top officials are playing down their efforts to rein in the industry, instead sounding themes similar to Mr. Stringer’s about approving more projects and expediting procedures.
“If you hear anybody on TV saying that somehow we’re somehow against drilling for oil, then you’ll know that they either don’t know what they’re talking about or they’re not telling you the truth,” Mr. Obama said in March, touring leased federal land in New Mexico. “We’re drilling all over the place.”
There’s little disputing that. From California to New York, and from Alabama to North Dakota, natural gas drillers — displaying a fragrant disregard for the environment — are racing to drill as many wells as they can, as quickly as they can, and activists who understand the danger are racing to keep up with them. And so there was also some heartening news this weekend out of Washington. It didn’t involve the president…but the people:
More than 5,000 people from all over the nation, and various parts of the world, including Australia, united on July 28 on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol demanding Congress take immediate action to stop fracking. After the rally that began at 2 p.m., rally participants marched for more than one hour, stopping at the headquarters of the America’s Natural Gas Alliance and American Petroleum Institute.
Rally speakers included, Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org; Josh Fox, producer of Gasland; Calvin Tillman, former mayor of Dish, Texas; Allison Chin, board president of the Sierra Club, and community members from swing states affected by fracking.
“As the increasingly bizarre weather across the planet and melting ice on Greenland makes clear, at this point we’ve got no choice but to keep fossil fuels underground. Fracking to find more is the worst possible idea,” said McKibben.
“The amazing thing about this problem is that there’s a solution… We know that we can run the world on renewable energy. We know that we can run the world on the wind. And this weekend, we have a reminder that we can run the world on the sun,” said Fox.
Right now, polls are showing that the public is fairly evenly divided over fracking — that shouldn’t be a surprise. On one side, you’ve got not only the big money of Big Oil but way too many politicians, including our timid, re-election-seeking president, while on the other side we have vocal citizens, with more and more everyday people joining up every day. Because the reality is that the more that Americans know about fracking — the toxic discharges, the methane infiltrating people’s tap water, the unregulated dumping of wastewater — the less they like it. Hopefully, public events like this past weekend’s Stop the Frack Attack will mark a turning point. It’s easy to buy off or bully the politicians, but the American people are smarter than that.
To read the New York Times article about pro-industry moves in the Bureau of Land Management, go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/28/us/politics/bureau-of-land-managements-divided-mission.html?pagewanted=all
To catch up with developments at this weekend’s Stop The Frack Attack event, please read: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stefanie-penn-spear/5000-people-unite-in-dc-t_b_1715851.html
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